TORTOISE & BONNIE "PRINCE" BILLY THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, 2006, Overcoat Recordings
Albums, like books, have a way by some mysterious intelligence of choosing you, not the other way around. You know that quiet anticipation you get from a trip to your favorite store, wondering what new, unknown discoveries will manifest themselves in your path; their covers, hidden in plain sight before, now choosing this particular moment to gleam unveiled, beckoning you, beguiling you, seducing you, like tiny watchful spirits suddenly making themselves visible, either to set you straight or hasten you along the road to ruin.
It’s an even more curious mystery when the album in question is one you already own. One that you purchased for various reasons—good cover art, solid personnel credits, a vague good intuition, etc.—but never really listened to. Because the record hadn’t deemed you ready. Such was the case with Tortoise & Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s overlooked icon The Brave and the Bold. I’ve been a Will Oldham fan since my buddy Mike turned me on to the first Palace album in college, and I’ve grown up with his evolving incarnations. I was always a Tortoise fan as well, having seen them a couple of times live over the years. But the two existed at opposite poles of the college-radio universe, safely appealing to separate components of my differentiated self.
I’d heard nothing in advance of their collaboration several years ago--a covers album, but bought it on merit when I saw it new in Amoeba, along with a couple of other things. The first time I played it I didn’t like it. Or maybe I should say I didn’t not like it, I just didn’t feel it… It was too noisy where it should’ve been quiet, too playful where it should’ve been soulful, too scary where it should’ve been playful. I’m not sure I ever even listened to Side B, abandoning the effort in favor of the other record I bought at the time, something surely much more essential and accessible to me, though I can’t remember what it was now.
The Brave and the Bold simply bided its time. Two and half years passed as it rested warm and idle in my record cabinet beside Aladdin Sane. Finally, it awoke, stirred and willed itself to my hand on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. Sara was busy baking late into the night and asked me to put on something that would invigorate her. I remember for some reason thinking she would like this, and I put it on without really being conscious of it. From the minute we heard the synthesizer-drenched opening of Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” we were both totally hooked. Those opening bars were like an L.A. ghetto bird’s restless, rustling spotlight; or a masked surgeon’s laser burning into a myopic eyeball. Then comes Will Oldham’s frail, unhinged yelp, nearly undone by the cold lyricism of the music, as it winds its way through the song, pleading and desperate and inescapably compelling.
Where once there had been jarring friction, now there was cohesion. There were new possibilities where there had once been irreconcilable opposites. To put it simply, the peanut butter fell into the chocolate, and now there was no longer such a thing as peanut butter or chocolate, just a spectacularly delicious, cold, gooey, nutty goodness. This record is the blueprint for what cover albums should be. An attempt to take something much beloved or criminally unheard, hear something unique in it, and then re-imagine it, rearrange it, and re-constitute it in a way that enhances and augments the joy of the original while making a brash new work of art. This process is epitomized with Elton John’s “Daniel,” one of the best tracks in the collection. Already sad, but perhaps a little too wistfully sentimental in its original form, the new version turns it into something downright tragic and personal, Will Oldham’s voice fragmenting in echo, hearing itself, trying to make a coherent statement of his mixed, pained emotions, as Tortoise’s insistent, hypnotic beat keeps interrupting him and won’t let up.
Reappraisal. Re-discovery. It’s the foundation of every record junkie’s jones. Clearly Tortoise and Will Oldham are record junkies themselves because most of the songs covered in this endearingly eclectic mix could only be heard on vinyl. From Portuguese crooners to the Boss, to folk remnant Melanie, to Devo and the Minutemen to solo Richard Thompson (whose "Calvary Cross" is transformed into a lost 70s-era Grateful Dead groove-out), The Brave and the Bold is a case study in the power of re-appraising forgotten, beautiful songs. In the art of transmutation. It is a record junkie’s dream fix. So who else is it meant for? Well, obviously both the brave and the bold. And also, in my case, the patient.